This was the mantra repeated by a presenter at one of the first AP conferences I attended. We were examining methods to break students out of shallow analysis.

The past few years of teaching AP Lang have convinced me that teaching students to write really comes down to three things: thesis statements, organization, and support. That covers about 95%. Throw in some style and intellectual maturity, and you have a great essay.

Since I’ve already talked about the thesis, I’m going to focus now on how I teach organization and support. Let’s dive in.

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The organizational pattern a student chooses will make or break the essay. In analytical essays, I push my students to abandon the five paragraph essay. Instead, they organize around the text they’re analyzing. The easiest way to teach this is with a tone shift. An essay outline might look like this:

Introduction; thesis statement about tone shift using “____ yet ____” frame

Body paragraph #1: How does the author reveal his attitude toward the subject matter in the beginning of the piece? How is that tone important to his overall message?

Body paragraph #2: At what point in the text does the tone (or other rhetorical/literary element) shift, and what is the new tone? What strategies or devices help create the new tone? How is the shift in tone itself/the new tone important to the author’s overall message?

Conclusion: Must address the shift as the vehicle for an epiphany, paradigm shift, or significant message.

It’s important to note that what I listed as two body paragraphs in the outline could easily be multiple paragraphs. Within each paragraph, I ask my students to follow the assertion-evidence-commentary format (rather than a more prescribed paragraph formula).


It wasn’t until I started teaching organizational patterns for the synthesis essay that I really wrapped my head around one of the biggest issues in students’ analysis. When they use support, they link the support back to the topic sentence or thesis, but they generally don’t link one piece of support to another. I started modeling what it looks like to explain a quotation, introduce an additional quotation, and link the two together, and the light bulbs started going off. When I threw in a fourth and fifth quotation, then linked them all together, my students’ minds were spinning.

It was a Homer Simpson “Doh!” moment for me, to be sure.

Beyond the assertion-evidence-commentary pattern, which is admittedly loose, I don’t teach any particular system of supporting an idea. I do, however, provide several guidelines.

  • The assertion should introduce the point that the evidence is going to prove, and it should be in the student’s own words. The assertion should always help prove the thesis.
  • Keep quotations short. Six to ten words is ideal. Quotations should be the most significant portions of the author’s text. It’s best to embed them if possible.
  • Commentary should be at least twice the length of the quotation. If the quotation is one sentence, the commentary should be at least two sentences. The commentary should NOT restate the author’s meaning in the student’s own words. Instead, commentary should 1) identify any rhetorical/literary strategies used in the evidence, 2) connect the strategies to their intended effect, 3) connect the intended effect to the overall purpose of the text, and 4) link the immediate quotation/evidence to ALL previously stated pieces of evidence.
  • It’s entirely possible and acceptable for a student to have only 1-2 pieces of evidence per paragraph. Depth is better than breadth.

To teach students to support their thinking, I have a few lessons in my back pocket that I use throughout the year.

  • Simple-sufficient-sophisticated: I use this terminology quite a bit. My go-to lesson involves having students choose a paragraph from a recent essay to revise. On a paper that’s been divided into thirds, they write their paragraph on the far left side and label it as “simple,” no matter how good it is. Then, after reviewing the criteria for proficiency, students make improvements to their paragraphs and write the fully revised version in the middle column with the label, “sufficient.” Finally, we review stylistic choices, and students add some flair to their writing. This goes in the far right column with the label, “sophisticated.” I model each step with my own writing. It’s powerful for students to see their paragraphs grow and change side-by-side.
  • Evidence redaction: When students are struggling with too much summary/paraphrase/quoting, I use this activity. Students have a black marker or Sharpie. They have to “butcher” a recent writing assignment by crossing out every word that is summary, paraphrase, or quotation. Then, they have to read what’s left out loud. I ask them to reflect on the experience. Did their writing make sense? Did it say anything significant, or did it seem lacking? Was there a logical progression of ideas? Could they still identify their purpose for writing? Was the purpose achieved?
  • Color coding: Students use three different highlighters to identify their assertions, evidence, and commentary. They examine and reflect on the ratio between the three to determine whether their writing is appropriately developed.

Rhetorical and literary analysis are year-long endeavors in my classroom; regardless of the quarterly curriculum, we are always reading and analyzing. I’m interested to hear about your experiences teaching students to write analytically! What tricks do you have up your sleeve?

A final thought: earlier today, I posted a brand new bundle on my Teachers Pay Teachers page. It includes nine different organizers, assessments, and activities I use to teach close reading and analysis. Please stop by my store to check it out, and while you’re there, click the green star below my name to follow me and receive updates and information about sales!

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